Reviewed by Kate
You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with: a well-rounded curriculum offering rigorous academics and an equal emphasis on art, music, and P.E.; high test scores; strong PTA; friendly, dedicated principal; developmental approach to teaching; good odds (80 kindergarten spots!)
Web site: www.friendsofalamo.org
School tours: Fridays at 9 a.m., call 750-8456
Location: 250 23rd Ave., between California and Clement; outer Richmond
Start time: 8:40 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 80 students total, four classes of 20 students
Playground: expansive black-top area; big play structure; roof-top garden
After-school program: No after-school program for kindergarten; Richmond District After-School Cooperative offered for 1st–5th
Language: after-school Chinese for 1st–5th
Highlights: vocal music for K–5th; P.E. for K–5th; SF Ballet in 2nd grade; ceramics and on-site kiln; Shakespeare program for 4th and 5th; Junior Great Books; talent show; back-to-school picnic; performing arts assemblies
A father of one of Alice's friends teaches at Alamo and I bumped into him on the tour. I asked him what he likes about the school.
"I get to teach," he said. "I really don't have to deal with discipline issues. The kids who go to Alamo tend to have good habits and they're well-behaved."
As I wandered through the classrooms, I could see what my friend was saying. Alamo kids are an attentive, focused bunch.
The tour began in the hallway outside the main office. The principal, Pamela Gire, greeted us all. "We're happy to have you be a part of our family this morning," she said. Gire, who resembles Cybill Shepherd, is upbeat and charismatic. As she talked about the school, a student gave her a box of chocolates (I toured the day before winter break). Gire returned the gift with a great big hug.
Gire explained that Alamo teachers use a developmental approach, so the kids are learning through hands-on activities and playing with manipulatives and blocks. Students are reading and writing at the end of kindergarten—though their levels vary. "One child might be able to write a whole paragraph, another is writing, 'The dog ran fast,' and another is only writing 'dog'," Gire explained. "Our teachers reach children at all levels."
She touched on the wide range of enrichment programs. The school has a full-time choral director, part-time librarian, and a full-time P.E. teacher. When the P.E. teacher Annie joined the staff a few years ago, the fifth grade physical fitness scores shot up. She told a story about Annie singing at the winter arts festival. After her performance, she shouted, "Does anyone out there like P.E.?" The kids went wild, screaming "Yes."
Gire opened it up to questions:
No on-site options for kindergartners but some kids take buses to the JCC or other schools. After-school starts in first grade. There's an arts-based program as well as a Chinese one.
How much does the PTA raise?
There's actually both a PTA and a foundation and together they raise $160,ooo. The spell-a-thon brings in $22,000. There's also an auction and other fund-raisers.
Sixty five percent of the student body is Asian, 6 to 8 percent Latino, and 30 percent other white.
One criticism of the school is that it's too big. Can you address that?
"We've actually been downsizing," Gire said. She explained that the school had 720 students at one time, with six classes in each grade. Several years ago, they started to pare down to four classes per grade. Eventually, the school will have only 480 students.
The president of the PTA, Jackie Choy, led us through the classrooms. Choy got her child into Alamo through the waiting list (there's hope!).
We started in Sharon Yow's kindergarten class. The kids sat in a circle around a pile of random stuff: a little car, a carrot, a candy cane, a plastic crab. "Put all the things that you find in the kitchen into a pile," Yow said. "Put all the things that can move into a pile." The kids were loving the game. And then Yow noticed that she recognized one of the prospective parents, and it turned out to be one of her former students. It was a very emotional moment as the two reconnected.
In the other kindergarten classes, the kids sat in groups at tables, practicing letters, coloring in pictures of Santa, creating a book about elves.
Next stop: auditorium where a group of fourth and fifth graders played ear-piercing music on clarinets and trombones. And then into some upper grades: a fifth grade class was graphing data and fourth graders were taking a spelling test. In one class, I noticed that all the kids and the teacher were sporting red—kind of cute. And the fourth grade classes were all equipped with electronic wipe boards—very cool. "When the teachers turn on the boards, the kids eyes light up," Choy said. "These are the kinds of things that keep kids excited about coming to school."
Before I left, I stepped outside where the kids were running around the playground at recess. The kindergarten teacher Sharon Yow stood watching and I walked up and introduced myself. She said that she had been teaching at the school since 1970 and that she had taught all the grades. She was friendly and kind and she asked me about Alice—it's always a good sign when teacher is interested in your child. She told me that Alamo is an excellent school, and then she grabbed my hand and said, "I hope you come back and see us. You're welcome here anytime. You should come visit in the afternoon and at the end of day. You need to visit a school more than once before you make a decision—you know?"